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Sunday, February 17, 2008
NCAA Diversity Rule: Progress, But Without Teeth, the Rule Has No Bite
The NCAA has just adopted a rule that requires Division 1-A schools (the largest and most powerful) with a football head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. This is modeled after the “Rooney Rule” imposed in the NFL. The NFL version of the policy achieved and continues to achieve measurable success. But a big part of the NFL success is caused by a feature that is deliberately absent in the NCAA version – accountability and penalties for non-compliance.
Under the Rooney Rule there is a financial cost. The Detroit Lions paid $200,000 when they failed to interview a single minority candidate for its upcoming 2003 season. Under the NCAA version, a school that ignores the rule is not punished for its failure – no scholarships removed, not a single dollar taken from its NCAA cut – not even a bad mark on NCAA compliance reports. The NCAA has a complex and voluminous maze of sanctions it imposes at its discretion including whether an alumni booster gives a cash poor player a plane ticket to see an ailing grandparent. Yet the NCAA did not think interviewing a minority candidate for a head coach position was of sufficient importance to impose even a $10 fine. This is not an issue of forcing a school to hire a minority candidate. Just include him in the pool so that the good ole boy system (“GOBS”) cannot be used to completely shut out those who you don’t already feel “comfortable” with, even if they are excellent coaches. Let the meritocracy of America have a chance.
As applied to the NCAA for this discussion, the relevant old axiom is: “Put your money where your mouth is.” The mouth of the NCAA is its chair Miles Brand that publicly said the lack of hiring of minority coaches is “appalling”. And the NCAA readily admits there is no adequate unbiased way to rationally explain why those African American players who hone their skills to become captains, leaders and coaches on the field cannot be coaches on the sidelines. The NCAA would surely rebuke any notion that there is something in the collective heads of African American players, or just by having more pigment in their skin, that keeps them in helmets, not headsets. Carried to the logical conclusion, if one believes African Americans can play but not coach, then at bottom that someone has already concluded that African American players just cannot think at the same level as whites. Or to use a lame excuse through code words: those who influence hiring, be they administrators or alumni, “are just not ready.”
In many areas, the NCAA has been heavy handed in requiring the D-1 schools to do what the NCAA thinks is important. The NCAA can legally state it is a voluntary organization owned by its member institutions. Technically, therefore, a member institution that refuses to obey a rule by the NCAA can simply quit. The obvious problem that belies the NCAA power is: Quit and go where? Start your own association?” So when the NCAA chooses to establish a rule with teeth, it can have pit bull impact and force compliance. The NCAA knows a vast majority of the impact players that generate multi-million dollar purses for the school football programs, and much of the half billion dollars a year generated by the NCAA is capitalizing on the talents of African American players. And with all due guilt, the NCAA says it must do better in assuring opportunities for them beyond the playing field.
But a diversity rule with teeth this isn’t just for African Americans. The NCAA admits it is good for all the players to benefit from the array of experiences from coaches of all backgrounds. The US Supreme Court made the point quite clear in deciding the affirmative action challenge against the University of Michigan. Justice O’Connor said incorporating diversity as a factor in accepting students is an imperative for our educational system as a whole. The majority of the highest court in America agreed. General Motors, and our nation’s military agreed in its legal briefs to the Court. If it is good for America to incorporate diversity into admitting students to a university, it is equally laudable to use diversity in hiring those who teach the students. As any successful head football coach will tell you, coaching is certainly about teaching. As coaches say when interviewing for the job: “My mission is to prepare the players not only in football, but more importantly for life and careers after football.” It is in the interests of all the players, particularly white players who may have never had contact with an African American in a “thinking” position of authority over them – like a head coach – to have that experience. It may prepare them for what they experience in life and during a career. It helps the vast majority of white players who want to rid themselves of any latent baggage from previous generations, in how they view teammates or black head coaches who came from such a different place in mind and space.
And what level of responsibility does the NCAA and its captive universities have to the African American players? This may come as a shock to some, but many of the players who make the biggest contribution to the millions made by the university were courted, hounded, and enticed in sophisticated and relentless ways that the best of Harvard Law School graduates will never experience. The school knows many are from challenging backgrounds with huge hurdles to academic success not experienced by most students or most of the other players on the team. So the university has a responsibility to deliver on their courtship promises. And part of that multi-million dollar marketing courtship from the big time schools is the promise to put that player in an environment well designed to help him succeed. Part of the success ought to be at least interview those who have a cultural connectivity with those challenged players so those players can see that people from a similar circumstance can overcome whatever obstacles are placed before them. That is one of the great promises of America. All this rule is designed to do is to make sure the promise is fulfilled – for the deserving coach and the player who wants to follow that lead. Again, let meritocracy in America have its day. In baseball, we didn’t know how good the game could be until we let everybody play. Now, NCAA, make sure we let everybody coach.
If the NCAA is as serious about the power of inclusiveness as it is about a booster’s airline ticket, then it would take away a scholarship, expose the noncompliance, or impose some customized sanction on the transgressor. Otherwise, we are likely to have more of the status quo, where African Americans in big time college football are essentially confined to being the gladiators, only allowed to wear helmet not headsets.
 The rule was named after Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and chairperson of the NFL’s workplace diversity committee.
 The Detroit Lions’ general manager, Mat Millen made that judgment call without apology and in his first three years the Lions had other bad judgments that made the Lions the NFL’s worst team (10-28).